Transcript: Melanne Verveer 2006

Ward Mailliard: I am happy to introduce you to Melanne Verveer, a person we’ve interviewed several times before. She is, in my opinion a great American and a great world citizen. She is someone who has done so much, and has affected the lives of so many people all over the world. Melanne is proof that one person can make a big difference. It’s an honor to speak with her. The reason we keep asking to talk to her again and again, is because you guys always like her, she has important things to say and she’s doing really important things in the world. Melanne has an organizatoin like no other in the NGO world, the Vital Voices project. This project is one of the most important projects going on today. Not just for women, but for everybody, for men and women, and for the planet. Vital Voices represents necessary next step in the evolution of society.

Melanne Verveer: Let me just say, Good Morning, and welcome to Washington! I’m very familiar with your school, and particularly with this innovative and exciting program. You all are really lucky to have it. I can remember years ago doing this interview at the White House, so I know you’ve been dong this for some time, because the Clinton administration hasn’t been around for six years. This has been a program with a lot of long standing life to it and an ongoing commitment, and I hope you appreciate Ward as much as we all admire him, because he cares about you all and your school. You can ask me just about anything. I know you all do your homework.

I’ve been both in the government sector and the non-profit civil society sector. I think our challenges today require us to work across all sectors, including the business community, to address some of the tough problems that are upon us. Ward mentioned Vital Voices. Vital Voices started as a government program, it started after the UN Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, where men and women, mostly women, from almost a hundred and ninety countries, came together and made commitments to advance women’s empowerment. Each country returned home and tried to carry out the commitments it had made. One of the commitments the US government had made was to help women, particularly those in the New World; for example, in the former Soviet Union people were tasting democracy and market economy for the first time in their lives. Nobody had ever trained them for this new world. In South America military dictatorships were being overthrown, and if those countries were going to succeed, women had to be at the table because you can’t write off the potential of half a population, and expect that somehow you’re going to have economic prosperity and social progress. It just doesn’t happen.

As a government we invested in women’s leadership, we brought women and some men from the United States to different parts in the world and they gathered emerging leaders, and taught them some of the practical things that one has to know in this new world. It was not what they got in their graduate school courses, as important as those are, or in law school, it was the kinds of things that they needed to know that might not have been taught. How do you negotiate? How do you grow a business if you’ve never had a business? How do you mainstream your issues? How do you advocate? How do you communicate well? So, we taught practical skills that would enable them to be effective leaders. Then, so many of the people from the United States who were involved as trainers said, “We really don’t think this should be just a government program, we all want to be part of this. About six years ago a group of people, mostly from the business sector, set up the Vital Voices Global Partnership. We have been working ever since to help give capacity, provide credibility, and lift up women’s voices that might otherwise be marginalized in their countries. We wanted to connect women with a network of people like themselves around the globe so they’re not working in isolation. I will leave it at that and would now hear from all of you.

Jonji Barber: Could you talk to us about what is going on with Vital Voices today?

Melanne Verveer: Well, when I leave here you’re going to meet Farida Azizi, who is an Afghan woman who came to the United States on political asylum. During the horrible Taliban period in Afghanistan, she did some very courageous things. She kept crossing the border from the camps in Pakistan to help her fellow country people at great risk. Finally, it became too dangerous. She had two young children, and she worried for their lives. The United States granted her asylum. When the Taliban were overthrown in early 2000, Vital Voices brought together a group of Afghan women, gave them leadership training, and they became the voices in the United States to encourage our government, and others, and the media, and other decision makers, to not forget the women in the building of the new Afghanistan.

We created a number of programs to help the Afghans, and Alyse who is somebody that Ward is familiar with, and many of you may have heard of, Alyse Nelson Bloom is in France right now because several of us will be going over in a couple of weeks to help train the Afghan parliamentarians. Through a quota system, Sixty-eight women, have been elected to the Afghan parliament. They come from different parts of the country so they don’t know each other. Also they maybe don’t even know what a legislative process requires, and we’re going to be working with them. Working with women in Afghanistan is one priority. Another is working with women in the middle-east.

You know the Middle East is a very tough neighborhood. There are a lot of challenges and we know women are the voices of moderation. All the studies show that the economic and political stagnation that exists is due in part to the fact that a lot of women still have not moved from being isolated from the economy, or being isolated from the political process. The women in Kuwait just finally got the right to vote, and run for office. We’re doing a lot of work in the Middle East and we’re continuing to do work in Russia and the Ukraine, which are parts of the former Soviet Union, to build civil society. In the next few months we are going to have major summits for women’s leadership. One in Miami for South America, and one in South Africa for women across Africa. We continue with our mission, and those are the targeted areas today.

Kristin Van’t-Rood: Given all the important issues facing women around the world, how, with limited resources, do you choose which issues on which to focus.

Melanne Verveer: Well that’s a very good question, because I think for any non-profit, and if any of you become engaged in non-profit work, which I hope you will, you’re always going to have issues of limited resources. You actually have them in government, too. One of the ways we do that is to maintain a focus on our mission, and not do ‘mission creep,’ as they call it, get into all kinds of other things. We really make sure that when someone comes to us with a need, for example the opportunity to work with Afghan parliamentarians, that before we say yes, as much as we want to, we go out and raise all the resources. We try, to know what it is one wants to do based on one’s mission, and stay focused on that so we can be responsive to the needs that are brought to us, and then to make sure we’ve got the budget to do the job well.

Daniel Nanas: It’s now been ten years since the Beijing conference when first lady Hilary Clinton said “Women’s rights are human rights, and human rights are women’s rights.” Have we made significant progress around the world in getting this notion understood and accepted?

Melanne Verveer: I think we have andI think we still have a long road ahead. You can look in many places and still see that girls aren’t being educated, or their place in society is still certainly not equal. Women are the bulk of the poor people in the world, and the least educated. On the other hand, just in the last several months we’ve seen a woman elected President in Chile, a prime minister in Jamaica, a Chancellor in Germany, and the first woman ever elected President in Liberia.

These are truly extraordinary symbols, and they have to become more than symbols. We have to see that women’s leadership will really make a difference in those countries. I think it will. Even in a place like the Middle East, many of countries are opening up opportunities in government for women. There are more women ministers now. In terms of political participation, you might be interested in knowing that there are more women parliamentarians in Rwanda than in any country in the world. Comparatively speaking, the United States is not doing as well as we should.
The Scandinavian countries are still doing the best in terms of political participation of women. They are also doing well in terms of the other measures like education and greater participation in the economies of their countries. In terms of maintaining getting economic viability to take care of one’s self and one’s family there are still a lot of challenges. One of the most significant problems that women confront every place, and it’s the most egregious human rights problem, is violence against women in its many different manifestations. Acknowledging that it is still a big problem, Daniel, in many countries, since Beijing, laws have been passed to criminalize violence against women. The next step is to insure that those laws are enforced and fully implemented, and to make sure that that happens you really need a strong civil society to hold governments accountable.

Mark Hansen: I was wondering, can you tell us about the Beijing conference, and how it was such a formative experience.

Melanne Verveer: It was really quite amazing, First of all it was a difficult path to get there for our own government because there are always issues in our relationship with China, and many of them got complicated during that period. There are people on the far right that always want to say that this kind of conference or women’s empowerment is different from what the agenda really should be. There were a lot of complicating factors, but I think the most amazing thing was to have people literally from every place in the world come together, many of them as official representatives of their countries. We had those delegations and thousands of others at ‘Non-governmental’ forum that was taking place at the same time on the same issues. It was amazing to see how people can really come together and bring some of the toughest problems occurring in their countries, and see how they can chart a way to insure that they’re going to bee addressed.
The conference before Beijing was the Nairobi conference, and that was the first time ever that an issue like violence against women was put on the world’s international human rights law agenda. In Beijing that was affirmed, and it was very clear that this is not a just private issue. Governments need to be held responsible. Violence against women is a criminal act and it’s not a matter of custom. As that awareness grows, and as the networking takes place, and as people learn from each other, people can bring those issues to the broader international table. Take for example property rights. In many countries women don’t have the right to inherit property, or if they can inherit property they inherit less then the male members of their family. These are terrible issues because in Africa, if your loved one dies, and as a woman you’re only left with the pots and pans and somebody else is left with the wealth to move the family forward, you’re never going to get out of the poverty in which you find yourself.

That’s where the conference really does the hard work, making sure that we can affect and appropriately change international law. In this instance, it had taken decades to insure that women’s rights really were part of that body of law called human rights; Not some sub section, not some little portion of human rights, but human rights. When you say “women’s rights are human rights,” During time that struggle was going forward. Then in the decisions that came out of the international body in Beijing, solidified and inscribed women’s rights in to human right’s laws. If you think coming to Washington, DC is great, and it is, that you all come together in a distant place and meet with interesting people, then you can imagine what it was like to be in Beijing. It was a place with literally thousands of people from every place in the world. We were trying to understand how different countries were working to address their problems, and see what had to happen on the international level, so that the law could speak to alleviating their problems and helping them address their challenges.

Emily Crubaugh: Can you talk about some of your most memorable times in White House, and being Chief of Staff to the First Lady?

Melanne Verveer: Well, it seems like so long ago. I think, truly, Beijing was a high point because when Mrs. Clinton took that podium and started talking about the different practices around the world, whether it’s rape as a tool of war, or whether it’s human trafficking, or whether it’s the low position of girl’s or not feeding girls, or drowning them or, dowry burnings, she took all the issues that women faced all over the world, and she said, “These are human rights violations.” To see the different groupings of people standing and cheering because somebody, who represented the greatest standing power on the earth, the United States, stood there and spoke about what they are confronting in their countries. It was very moving.

I had the privilege to work with her, and to visit some ninety countries around the world. We didn’t just go to fancy dinners. We went into the villages, and we were really talking to people, getting together with a group of leaders behind a closed door and finding out, “What is happening in the country?” “What are people grappling with?” It was just an astounding mirror on the world, and the most gratifying part is to see progress that has been made over time. When you are in a position like I was at the very high level in the White House, you see how decisions are made, what needs to be done, how people need to come together. That has helped me enormously, because having been in government it’s much easier to help others in civil society as they advocate to their own governments. It has helped me to know what is the most effective course.

Alyssa Denebetti: We know from earlier interviews that you are inspired, in a large part, to a life a public service by President Kennedy. Do you see anyone in the political landscape today to inspire a generation like he did?

Melanne Verveer: I should throw that question back to all of you. Who do you find inspirational today?

Jonji Barber: Barack Obama.

Melanne Verveer: Barack Obama. I hear that a lot from young people, and I think he’s definitely somebody to watch. I think it’s really important for you to have role models, not just in your school or in your community, or in your family, but to have role models who stand out and stand up for the United States. It was because of John Kennedy that I came to Washington. I was your age, in high school, when he was running for office, and his Presidency came to fruition. I came here with my junior class and my classmates tell me, to this day, that I just announced to everybody on the bus when I saw the spires of Georgetown that that’s where I would be going to school. I knew nothing about their admission requirements, I knew nothing about the process I had to go through, but I was determined to come to Washington to be part of what was going on. It’s the idealism of youth, and it’s wanting to become engaged, and here I sill am all these years later, I’ve never left.

You just don’t know how things are going to work out. Kennedy did inspire, and when he asked us not to think about what we could do for ourselves, but what we could do for our country. It touched a nerve. The Peace Corps was started, you had large numbers of young people wanting to go around the world and make a difference. One of my favorite quotes is from his brother, Bobby Kennedy who was also very inspirational. We were going through a lot of really tough times We had the Vietnam war after John Kennedy, that was just beginning to pick up, and the civil rights movement was at it’s height, and these were many causes. So many young people have come to me over the years and have said, “What was it like back then?” Well today we have different challenges, and they’re going to be yours to confront.

One of the things that Bobby Kennedy said was, “Some people look and see things as they are, and say ‘why?’ You wring your and you say ‘Why is that happening?’ ‘Other people see things as they could be, and say, ‘Why not?’’’ It’s not easy to dream the “why not,” but if you don’t try, change will never occur. I hope that you will be the kinds of people that will look at a situation that is screaming out for resolution, and instead of saying “Why?” and wringing your hands, you will think of what could be instead, and say “Why not?” and go for it. I do think inspirational leaders make a difference. I think today we have a celebrity culture, with the Hollywood types, or the rock star types, or the sports figures. Hopefully some of them are inspirational beyond just their narrow lives. I do think it’s really important for all of society to have inspirational leaders. That is one definition of a leader, to be able to inspire.

Seychelle deVries: I was wondering, have there been any women in particular in your life that have inspired you to lead the life you have? And which qualities in these women do you admire?
Melanne Verveer: Well there are a lot of women, and more that I have never known but have admired in terms of what they have achieved. You know a woman like Rosa Parks, showing that one person can truly make a difference. She knew her worth as a child of God, and she didn’t understand why she would have to sit at the back of the bus just because of the color of her skin. She took a stand, and the rest is history. Or somebody like Harriet Tubman, who was moving the slaves from the South to freedom in the North. She had a saying, “Keep going, keep going.” During some tough challenges, we would often think of somebody like Harriet Tubman, and that phrase just keeps ringing in your head, “Keep going.”

I remember going with Mrs. Clinton when she was First Lady to Seneca Falls New York, where the first women’s convention on equal rights took place in the 1800’s. We were on a tour looking some of America’s great inspirations and treasures that needed to be preserved. This is a hundredth anniversary of what happened at Seneca Falls. In preparing for Seneca Falls, I learned about a woman, a little older then all of you, named Charlotte Woodard. She was a glove maker; she worked in a factory in upstate New York. She lived at a time when she could not keep the money she earned. Women couldn’t divorce, they couldn’t have custody of their children if there was a divorce, she had no rights to inherit property, and she could not vote. It was a different time. She so much wanted life to be different, and she wrote in her diary about how she took off that night, and as she got in her carriage, she was terrified that she would be the only one on the road to this Seneca Falls conference. She said, “As the sun was coming up, and she began to see many people on foot, men and women, walking to this conference.” She saw others in their buggies, all going in the same direction.

I think about her because at least for the women in this room, and hopefully the guys all concur, we’re still on that road to equality. Around the world there are so many women who haven’t achieved their basic rights. Charlotte Woodard is not a household name, but she’s a woman that truly inspires. You don’t have to know people, you can read about them in the history books, or come to know about them through documentaries. They can be the source of great inspiration.

Xander Crawford: What would you say Vital Voices has done so far that has had the greatest positive impact on women abroad?

Melanne Verveer: Well, as I said, the thing we do most, our hallmark is to work with an emerging woman leader who’s educated, who is in a place to make a difference, but doesn’t have that skill set yet to be as effective as she can be. Our goal is to help her realize her potential, to connect her with other people like herself who are doing comparable work, maybe even across an ocean in a different continent. We can help to raise her up in her own country where often she is not recognized or doesn’t have the entrée she should have. We know our effectiveness by virtue of what happens to these people with whom we work, and see when they go back home what they’re able to do.

We ask each group of women, what obstacle are you trying to over come, what are you seeking to achieve? One of the issues we work on is human trafficking, I don’t know if that is something you are familiar with, but it’s a horrific problem today. It’s really modern day slavery. What is happening in this global economy is that there is an enormous, underground, operation that is making billions of dollars on human trafficking. Second to drugs and arms sales, is the sale of people. In order to really crack down on the traffickers, and they often are aided and abetted in their work by corrupt government officials, its requires people from civil societies like you to hear about the problem, I first heard about it when women from Ukraine were talking about women in the villages disappearing, and how they couldn’t get the local police, they couldn’t get national governmental officials, they couldn’t get anybody to pay attentions. Vast numbers of people were disappearing. Mostly they were told that there were good jobs for them in the West and then never heard from again.

We know government is the most responsible agent in addressing this problem, but people like yourselves in civil societies, the advocates, particularly the women who know about this problem, couldn’t get government to respond. So, one of the things we’re able to do at Vital Voices is bring government officials together with non-governmental representatives. We bring them to the table. They often don’t talk to each other. They don’t often care for each other. But we need them to begin to solve this problem together because they need each other and it’s the only way it’s going to get addressed.

In Hungary, for example, we were able to get them to the US embassy, and meet there with the ambassador, and there was a company, Mex, which makes women’s apparel and has manufacturing in Hungary. You had a top official from the company, you had the women activists, you had the representatives from government. When that happens the message that goes out is a very powerful. It says this is an important issue, and you must work on the issue. When those kinds of collaborations are formed, and you get people to start passing laws and you get police taking the issue seriously, and the non-governmental organizations have entrée into their government where previously the doors were slammed in their faces, that’s when we know we’re really being able to make a difference. It’s giving people the skill sets. These are the kinds of things you are getting because you’re in school, and you’re imbued with all kinds of possibilities, you’re going to be that much better when you graduate because of that.

Prabha Sharan: I’m attending school from Sri Ram Ashram in India, you spoken about women getting educated in the Middle East, and I was curious to know what Vital Voices is doing in India?
Melanne Verveer: We’ve had several projects in India; one was on safe drinking water. Water is a huge problem around the world, and in much of the world it is the source of contaminants and disease and all of the things that keep people from getting ahead. It’s even a problem because so much of the time has to be spent walking miles and miles to fetch water. What you’re accustomed to here, much of the world can’t even relate to It’s a very serious issue. One of the things we did was we brought together a group of women from a state in India, all of whom were working to try to get the government to be more responsive on some of the water issues, and they wanted to learn advocacy skills and other kinds of skills.

That was one project, there’s an extraordinary woman in India by the name of Jaya Arunachalam, who runs the working women’s forum, and here one person changing the world, this woman worked with the poorest of the poor, women who had no future whatsoever by any standard definition. Many of them were rag-pickers. They just had nothing in their lives. She worked with them not just to help them get skills, but then to get access to credit, to gain self esteem, and she has transformed the lives of tens of thousands of women throughout India. We honored her two years ago at the Kennedy Center, where every year we have a small awards ceremony.

Banks, major commercial lending institutions, are now lending money to these women. Initially they got the equivalent of maybe twenty-five dollars from this project that Jaya ran, and they paid that loan back, the grew their business, and over time they were hiring ten, fifteen, twenty people which would have been unimaginable years earlier. They then got to a regular bank like and get a loan that’s not the tiny micro-loan, but a bigger loan. They become successful participants in the economy of their country, and that’s what Jaya saw, the possibility in really making a difference to transform these people’s lives.

Nina Castanon: It seems you can’t always see, or directly measure your success in public service, especially in the short term. How do you find continued inspiration to keep going in your work?
Melanne Verveer: I think that is a really good question because a lot of people in public interest work, non-profit work, suffer terrible burn-out. You find more and more organizations cropping up to help participants in NGO’s not just sustain their organization and run their organization, but to keep themselves together so they don’t get burned out. You tend to burn both ends of the candle; work long hours for less compensation than the outside market would provide you. On the other hand, you have tremendous rewards in terms of knowing that the type of work you are doing is really work that makes a difference.

I always tell groups who are involved with public interest work that I think one of the tendencies in all of us, is always to look for that next fight, to say “Yeah, we may have gotten this, but now we need to get that.” I think it’s really important both for the decision makers whom you’re trying to influence in government, to see what they’ve achieved with you, what you’ve achieved together. Let’s say you created a program was adopted to help poor kids. Instead of going in two years later for the next program, which you might want and need to do to grow the program, make sure people understand what they’ve achieved in the first tier of that program.

That’s some of the psychology, we need both appreciate what it is we’ve accomplished, and help decision makers who’ve helped us appreciate also when they’ve accomplished by partnering on these projects. I don’t think the perfect should be the enemy of the good, I think one strives to achieve a goal. You may come short of the goal, but if you’ve achieved sixty percent, that’s better then achieving nothing, and then you can grow from that sixty percent to seventy, eighty, ninety, to a hundred percent. I think the psychology in all of this is also important to sustaining yourself in this kind of work.

Luke Sanders-Self: I’m Luke. We’re hearing a lot about women’s issues in the Middle East; do you think there is any place, in particular, that we’re not paying enough attention to?
Melanne Verveer: You could say many, many places where we’re not paying a lot of attention. In the Middle East there is a growing awareness that there are a lot of customs and tribalism and other constraints that have accumulated over time, that are a problem. Let me give you an example. Let’s take Morocco, which is in northern Africa, but it’s a predominantly Muslim country.
For years they try to get family law reformed. If a woman’s in an abusive situation in a marriage, only the male can bring divorce proceedings. Can women have custody of children as well? Who shares responsibilities in a marriage? Originally it was just the religious courts in Morocco that would have the adjudicative powers on family law reform. For years the struggle went on. Many women, were imprisoned for taking on this fight, and the opponents said that in the Koran we cannot allow this kind of change. What one finds is that some extreme religious interpreters will try to hijack the religion, and just justify oppression in the name of religion.

What women in Morocco, and in other places, learned to do, is say “No! This is not our religion, we’re very religious people, and we believe that it is the values of the Koran that are imbued in this family law reform.” They went to the king who, in Morocco, is viewed as the successor to Muhammad, and the king agreed with them. When this new reform was finally passed, groundbreaking reform last year in Morocco, the law was laid out so that, let’s say men and women have full responsibilities in their families, not just men. Then there would be a Koranic verse that would ascertain that as well. Then the next provision of the new law would be, “Women can petition for a divorce.” Then there would be a Koranic verse that would justify it. I think what is happening in that part of the world now, is that previously the opponents of reform used religion to justify their position, and now the proponents of reform, particularly women, are learning that they are not allow religious values to be used as grounds to keep progress from occurring. They know there reforms are consistent with religious values.

I’ll tell you a story from Malaysia. Malaysia is one of the first Muslim countries to adopt a “violence against women” law. The women in Malaysia created an extraordinary coalition that transcended all kinds of groups and societies, in support of this because who believes in abusing women, right? Then, some very extreme elements in the religious society said, “Oh, no, we can’t support this law. This reform should not go forward.” What the proponents did was they sought out theological experts and other religious leaders, and made them a key part of their campaign for legislation. In parts of the world religion has been used by some, in fact they’ve hijacked the religion in that way, to promote oppressive practices. Now proponents of the religion are saying, “No, no.” It’s really wrong to look at the Muslim world and say, “its anti-woman,” because there are many Muslim countries where there has been a lot of progress.

People, who want to misinterpret, or promote their narrow goals, for tribal reasons, or patriarchal reasons, will try to legitimize it through religion. What’s very interesting is, if you look at a lot of what is happening in the Middle East, you will see how people are not giving up their religious values to be proponents of women’s progress. They’re rooting their commitment to progress in their religious values. The same happened in this country. Some of the most progressive legislation in terms of social underpinnings of America came out of a progressive era. Things like getting rid of child labor, and some of the other worst labor conditions were fostered by Jane Adamsand other women in Chicago. Those were women with strong religious views, who were motivated by their religion. We always see these inspirations. That’s one of the interesting aspects of what’s happening in the Middle East.

Andrea Schmitt: To what extent is America a role model, for better or for worse, for women’s rights around the world? Are there any significant consequences to the legislation and attitudes in America for women’s rights, that impact of women’s in the rest of the world?

Melanne Verveer: I think to a large extent where we’ve succeeded, and it’s taken us a long time too. It took us years to get the right to vote, women weren’t written into the United States constitution. Our progress came out of a struggle; it took years for women to have equal rights in education. Many, many schools didn’t take women including state schools, nor did they allow women in sports programs. There have been a whole host of issues where great efforts had to be made over time, and I always say, to the women in this room and others like you, don’t forget that you sit where you sit because so many others struggled so you could have the same rights and opportunities.

Charlotte Woodard struggled so that we could have the opportunities that she didn’t have. I think that is something to keep in mind. To the extent that we’ve made progress, and we have model programs and model legislation, that inspire women in other parts of the world. Sometimes the way we depict women in our cultural products is not always the most redeeming quality we have. I’ll tell you a story. I was at a big conference that included economic leaders from around the world as well as other kinds of leaders. It was after 9/11 and it was the World Economic Forum. I went to breakfast with Muslim women, and there was a woman sitting next to me who was a CEO of a company in the Middle East. She was very conservatively dressed with her veil, and she had in her hand a column that Hilary Clinton had written as First Lady. Hillary Clinto wrote a column every week that got carried in many newspapers around the world. I didn’t tell her where I had worked, and I just said, “Why do you have that column? I’m very interested.” She said, “Oh this is so important.” “I said, “Why is it important?” She said “Because she writes here about respect for the family, and how the family is the bedrock of society, etc. etc.” I said “well, in the United States we all believe that.” She said, “No. We watch Baywatch in our country, or Dallas. We know what you are really like.

I thought, here is a very well educated woman, she has traveled the world, she is running a major company, and yet our culture is so profoundly influential in her society and that is the image that is conveyed. So people have mixed messages about America. One of the problems that we have today, one of the big challenges for the United States is “Why does so much of the world dislike us?” I think they may dislike our policies, but they also don’t understand us, and we have to do a better job about talking to each other, working together, understanding each other.
That’s why these exchange programs, young people your age, coming from other parts of the world to your high schools, Bradley scholars, other kinds of scholars, exchanges. Those are unforgettable experiences. If you go and live in the Middle East for a year, or somebody from there comes here, they are going to be formed for life by that experience, for the better. Deep down we really do have to understand each other better than we do, and respect each other.

Naomi Magid: I heard you say something about this when you first came in; that the First Lady had an extraordinary impact by telling the world, “You can’t have vibrant democracies or free market economies without the full participation of women. You can’t write off half the world’s population and expect that our foreign policy goals are going to be met.” Can you talk about what those foreign policy goals are, and some of the specific benefits you see? Take the situation where you have men and women, let’s say fifty-fifty. In a lot of countries there are more women then men, especially where there have been wars. If you write off the fifty percent from the start because they are women and they can’t participate in the formal economy of their country, and they can’t sit at the table and help govern the country, you’re going to have problems. You don’t need scientific research to prove that, but today we’ve got research in volumes from the World Bank, from the United Nations, from the World Economic Forum, that shows very dramatically, that if women don’t fully participate in the economies of their countries, in the governance of their countries, there’s going to be more corruption, there’s going to be more poverty, there’s going to be less progress. If any country wants to advance, it really has to take into full value all of its citizens, not just half of its citizens. I would say, in terms of our own government, both at home we should promote programs that try to help other countries invest in the women in their population. The single best investment a country can make, in terms of our social development, is to invest in a girl’s education, because when you invest in a girl you educate a family, you educate a community. All of the data shows there is better nutrition in that family, there’s less disease, and the mothers will have a better sense of how to support the family. It’s the single best investment that can be made.

We have things called Millennium Development Goals, I don’t know if you’re aware of these goals that have been set by the United Nations, if we’re going to have a better world we’ve got address poverty, we’ve got to address education, we’ve got to address political participation. We don’t even come close to goals of universal education and girl’s education, so that’s certainly a place where we can invest for greater pay-offs for the betterment of the world, because it’s in all our interests.

Then there is an issue like micro-credit, which is loaning small amounts of credit and providing some training. For example you can take a woman in Bangladesh, or India, or any part of the developing world, and help her to invest in a cell phone, just a single cell phone, and start a business in a village where there are no telephone connections. Or, you could help her invest in a cow and she can sell the milk, or invest in cinder blocks to start building housing. This is incredibly transformative, and these small starts grow into bigger businesses. Those kinds of long term, social development investments will pay off. Not just for those countries and in the progress of the women in those countries, but for us, too. Those investments will help create a world that is going to be better for the United States.

Madeline Weston-Miles: What is most important advice that you have for us today?

Melanne Verveer: I think, at this stage in your life, my advice would be to learn all you can from your education, and refer to the formal and the informal side of your education. To embrace your whole community, including your local community, your national community, and your world community. To understand that you’re not an island, and your school isn’t an island. That’s why I think Ward and others bring you to places like Washington, D.C. so you can see beyond the confines of your campus and your immediate lives and know that there is a bigger world out there. You have to be part of that world, all of you, because that’s the only way that anything gets achieved.

We talk a lot about democracy, and we hear politicians talking about a democracy. Well democracy is about people having the power to be players in their society and to affect outcomes. It is for them to make decisions about who their representatives are going to be, and to hold them responsible. The power of the citizen is the single greatest power anybody can have. Imagine what it is like for me to go to places where there never was a democracy and tell them they’ve got the power of the citizen. I try to explain this to people, who have always been told the government would decide things and that what was decided was none of their business

I worry. I’ve seen a lot of studies on young people over the years, that show that you,our young people aren’t as connected as you ought to be to your communities and beyond your communities. I think that portends the future of not just our country, but the kind of world we’re going to have. It really does rest with all of you. Look broadly, care, have dreams, but don’t think that your dream is going to be achieved linearly. It might, if you’re lucky, but get the best out of any situation in which you find yourself. You all may think you’re going to be in a certain place, and it may not turn out to be exactly that way. It may turn out to be so much better and so different.

If you have the constitutive elements, if you have those traits where you’re interested in other people, where you care about what is going on around you, where you want to make a difference, where you get yourself as educated and skilled as you can, you’re going to do very well. Your definition of well should be your definition of what it is that makes you happy and productive. I think that’s the advice I would give. It is to see bigger than your present circumstances, or bigger then the situation in which you find yourselves at any given time, because everything truly is possible. As Susan B. Anthony said, in that long struggle for the women’s right to vote, “Failure is impossible.” So just keep that in mind.